Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers

From the very beginning we fight for life, pushing through the moist darkness of the womb, towards the light of the world, and that first breath. We relied upon the strangers who were there, welcoming us with open arms; kind strangers without whom we would not have survived. I have often been moved by the occurrence of an intimate conversation with a taxi driver or someone sitting next to me on a plane when against all odds there is a recognition, an attunement across culture, race, age or privilege. It might be expressed in a smile or a glance or an act of kindness a sense of being joined by similarity rather than difference. The woman behind the counter sees my tired eyes and offers me coffee on the house. On my way home from work each day I pass the homeless woman manning her corner on the freeway overpass. She says she prays every day for me. She could tell I had cancer last year because I was bald. So could Cory, a very buff and handsome young black man who would often jog past me each Thursday morning on the hike and bike trail. “You are my inspiration,” he would say.

A neighbor told me his parents had battled cancer in another state. He couldn’t be there to care for them. He wondered if he could help me as a way to give back to the world for the strangers that had helped his parents. Every week through my battle with cancer, people I barely knew dropped off organic meals lovingly prepared. A woman who my son worked with in Costa Rica send me a tiny red thread to wear around my neck. It had been blessed by the Dalai Lama. I have never even spoken to her. My ex husband, although not a stranger, went with me to every doctors appointment and every chemo session so that I wouldn't be alone. In the early days when I was recovering from the surgery, he placed a wooden angel over my bed. Every night he tucked me in to sleep throughout the long months undergoing chemo and radiation. Something about cancer, and perhaps breast cancer in particular, seems to move some people to their deepest compassion.

My friend Lexi, a breast cancer survivor ahead of me by one year, emailed me the other day. Her dear friend Alexandria, a beautiful young 34 year old woman was having a mastectomy that day. Lexi was crocheting a “love blanket” for Alexandria and her husband. Lexi’s orchestrated each of Alexandria’s friends and family from all across the country. Each picked out a special color of very soft ball of wool, imagined infusing it with love and then tied a little note to the ball expressing the prayerful intention of the sender. Lexi remembered that when she had cancer some of the things she appreciated the most were the gifts and kindnesses that came from complete strangers. Lexi asked if I would like to find some wool to contribute to this many coloured blanket. How could I say no? Lexi was a stranger who had come into my life. Lexi made a similar “love blanket” for me this time last year from the threads of yearn sent to her in secrecy from my friends and family from all over the world. Strangers, who I still have not met, friends of Lexi's sent yarn and prayers as well. I wrapped up in it every night. I especially remember its softness when the bone pain reached excruciating levels as one medication created so many white blood cells in my bone marrow that I could feel the bones as if they were being stretched from the inside.

Now a year later I am meeting Lexi and her husband, Mark, for dinner in a local vegan restaurant. I hadn’t seen them for many months. Much can happen over a year besides a cancer diagnosis, surgery, chemo and radiation. I now have sexy, spiky hair. As Dr Doty, my oncologist says, “Any hair is a good hair day” . My strength is coming back. From the searing perspective of cancer, it is possible to let go of old wounds and recognize when certain relationships are no longer sustainable. Gratitude and delight lurk in new corners. I made friends with a wild dolphin over the summer on an island off the coast of Ireland. He put his nose an inch from my hand and rotated his whole body from side to side so that he could look at me with both eyes. I made friends with a Khen Rimpoche, Tibetan monk, on the anniversary of my diagnosis. We spent a weekend talking and laughing about the the nature of the dharma. "Practice suffering change", he said to me as we walked from the hot desert sun into the air conditiong. I watched him eat ice cream at the Bellagio Hotel and look with wonder at the lights of Las Vegas at night. An unlikely encounter with spirit. I know he still remembers the day the Chinese tanks rolled into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and annihilated the world as he knew it but it has not prevented him from joy. He gave me prayer flags to bless my home so that my prayers could be carried on the wind.

In the early months of recovery from treatment, I had the opportunity to present at the American Group Psychotherapy Conference on “Mindfulness and Healing Trauma”. I experienced the arc of my life this September as I walked in silence in support of the Buddhist monks in Burma in the UCLA sculpture gardens across the street from my high school with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hahn, Jack Kornfield, and Dan Siegel. This year also I have watched my son turn into a man. This year I have witnessed my mothers decline into Alzheimer’s.

Today Lexi and I both are selling our homes, creating new spaces for our new lives. She and Mark have bought a condo. I am designing and building a green home. Austin is better than the rest of the country but it is still a sluggish real estate market.

“How are you coping ?”, Lexi asks. Lexi was just diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and heart damage from the chemotherapy.

“You mean, about the condo not selling yet? or are you talking about the fear of recurrence?”

“Yeah, about the condo. What’s your coping strategy?”

I am quiet for a moment. “Same as with cancer…I breathe and come back to this astonishing and unrepeatable moment and move forward into the unknown from there’

I notice the soft ball of purple yarn I have just given Lexi for Alexandria’s blanket. I think again about the kindness of strangers. I realize that the stranger I have come to know is myself.

Love After Love

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the others welcome, and say, sit here. Eat

You will love again the stranger who was yourself.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate


peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life

- Derek Walcott

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Gifts of Cancer

You Darkness

You darkness from which I come,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
for everyone
so that no one sees you anymore.

But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight-

and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.

I have faith in the night.

Rainer Maria Rilke; Tranlated by David Whyte ( From Fire in the Earth, the "Fire in the Body" Section)

There is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the darkest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny places. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than the other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

- Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Printed on muted green paper and taped to my kitchen "wailing wall", these words have presided over all that has arisen in my life since the night before my surgery for breast cancer. It was given to me by someone, a remarkable woman, who knows well about the darkness, and how to navigate its valleys. Many years ago, just after their first Christmas as a happy family with their newborn son, her husband became ill and was rushed to a nearby hospital. “If he doesn’t make it through the night, I wont be surprised” the admitting staff informed her, moving him immediately to ICU. From that moment on, everything that was her life began to become undone. They were told he would need a heart transplant but that he was a good candidate. On Valentine’s Day, they received a donor heart. In the wee hours of the following day, they kissed one another before he was wheeled into surgery. The surgery did not go well. Marty never regained consciousness. He died post surgery. Suddenly at 30, Candyce was left alone to walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with their infant child.

She became very familiar with the terrain of darkness; over time she could brail its contours and step carefully so as not to slip and fall to her own death. She raged at those who cheaply consoled so as not to bear the pain of their own helplessness. She would not be talked out of the harshness of her experience, its richness or stark beauty. She hated the daily agony of raising her son without his father. She felt empty as a mother. She entered seminary and soon found that she had moved far outside of the boundaries of conventional religious thinking yet sought the "sacred" with each breath. She was fiercely determined not to move from her despair until the next real emotion came along. She had discovered a paradoxical wisdom; that if she was able to sit with the searing pain of her loss, the fire that burned her also freed her. She tried graduate school again, this time she enrolled in a spiritually oriented depth psychology masters program in California. She used her own personal story as the fundamental ground for her master's thesis on working with catastrophic loss. Today she is a brilliant therapist. She raised a curious and loving son. She continues her own soul work. She flew within the gorge, high up in the mountains. She learned to soar. I was lucky enough to fly beside her through in her journey. She taught me about the strength of searing vulnerability. I could offer my presence, holding her pain in my heart along side her until she could metabolize its enormity. Together we found ways to honor her grief. Slowly she found her wings and her way through the darkest gorges.

The night before my surgery a prayer gathering was held for me at the Shambala Buddhist Meditation Center in Austin. Prayers were offered in Hebrew, Arabic, Pali and English from the wisdom traditions of the Middles East and Asia. Poetry and song, also forms of prayer were offered. Over 100 people came that night, she was one of them. She had printed a copy of Rilke's poem and the passage from Moby Dick on a piece of muted green paper with a little note that said, "Gaea, I’m holding you in my heart. With much love, Candyce". She reminded me of the great strength of the body, the possibility of healing and the soaring of the eagle in the high mountain gorge. She beckoned me to have faith in the night. She reminded me of the power of her own healing journey. She had come now to help heal the therapist who had journeyed beside her in the dark places.

Yesterday my friend, Ariel Jordan, sent me an essay by Daniel Goleman on the neurobiology of emotional healing ( see posting on mirror neurons) Goleman, well know for his work on emotional intelligence, wrote about a beloved professor who had lived with cancer for over a decade, far beyond the stark prognostic indicators of his diagnosis. Goleman suggests that he may have stayed alive and well for so many years because the physiological impact of the great flow of people from all over the world who loved him and considered him a lifelong friend. There is a deep connection between relationship and physical health. Research indicates that people with rich interpersonal networks, active in their social and religious groups recover more quickly and live longer when faced with severe illness.

I have taken the poem down from the wall. It sits before me at my computer as I begin to reflect upon my own journey with cancer .We know instinctively that loving connection nurtures the soul, that compassionate presence alleviates suffering, making the unbearable bearable. Only recently have we begun to understand that emotional solace is biologically grounded. MRI studies show that just the simplest contact, the touch of the hand from a loved one, greatly reduces heightened anxiety and the stress response in the brain circuitry. Through the intricacy of neural networks in the brain we come to understand the mind and body in relationship. Mirror neurons in the brain track emotional flow, movement and even intention between people. These interpersonal orchestrations shift physiology. When someone compassionately bears witness to our suffering, holding out a hand, we feel held and not alone. We may have flown down into the darkest of gorges but up again we soar into the sunny places.

In my journey with cancer it is the sense of connection that has held me and padded the corners. From the initial diagnosis, through the surgery and the up and down days of chemo therapy with side effects ranging from severe nausea to deep impenetrable bone pain, I have felt as though I have been carried in the arms of love. Even with a prognosis that leaves me feeling quite vulnerable, I have found the vulnerability a necessary ingredient in opening fully to the many rich and wondrous relationships that sustain me, to the kindness of strangers and to the work of spiritual practice. I have given myself permission to turn attention away from that which does not nurture my soul. Where I have suffered rejection or disappointment, a radical new acceptance has mysteriously emerged from deep within my body bringing with it the flush of self acceptance. My mind has become my ally rather than my wedded enemy. Clinical work has deepened; in some cases I am much softer and more compassionate, and in other cases much more impatient. It is a gift to be reminded of death as it hones the awareness that time is so precious. Cancer brings many gifts. They aren’t wrapped with bows, so you have to pay attention. Cancer, if you let it, will train your eyes to see, so you can dive down into the darkest gorges, and by staying connected you can soar out of them again, becoming both invisible and visible in the sunny places.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Take Me out to the Bald Game

For a long time now, like most of us, I’ve been pretty identified with
my hair. I remember "hair dresser trauma"-when I was a little girl never being
able to say out loud to the woman “Hey lady, quit wrecking my hair”. I was
a good girl. I had never been spanked or sent to my room. I figured a haircut
was a punishment for all the naughty things I thought about and didn’t do, or
did do and got away with. Like playing doctors with Philip Cresenzi, who
cheated at Fish, said bad words at Little League and played with matches
up in the big tree where he and I had built our fort. As soon as the little black
comb and those small stainless steel scissors came out of the drawer,
I would begin to weep.
I had straight hair. I wanted dark curly hair. Permanents didn’t work on my hair.
Bobby pins fell out. Hair bands made me claustrophobic. By the time the late
sixties came along I had out grown all the pixie cuts, bobs and mop tops in
favor of growing long blonde hair and bangs that hung defiantly
in my face and seemed to be particularly annoying to nuns and attractive to
boys, both of which I figured had to be good.
I also had the self appointed job of protecting my little sister from infinite
agony of bad hair cuts. Being bi-racial, she had beautiful black soft ringlets
like Nurse Lovely. I called them "boinga boingas". I regularly shaped her boingas
into a perfect “fro” (short for Afro) She would look up at me with her big brown
eyes wondering how she could get straight blonde hair like mine, planting seeds for the illicit use in her
teen years of spray- on bleach concoctions which guaranteed the "california girl" look,
turning her African hair orange. Otherness is always so exotic.
I have journeyed this life as a blonde; suffering through “dumb blonde jokes, receiving preferential treatment with
shades of objectification, and enduring many worrisome moments in swarthier cultures. Once in the Kasbah in Fez,
, a very tall man with rounds of ammunition across his chest and a very large sword demanded to buy me
from my boyfriend in exchange for a large number of camels. It had something to do with my hair.
Apparently the harem was short on blondes. My old college sweetheart would often say, “Underneath that ditzy
blonde exterior, is a brilliant woman”. Somehow my hair had an inverse relationship with my IQ.
Throughout my life, often in the aftermath of one of our many  mother/daughter arguments, my mother would look
at me, soften her gaze and in a conciliatory offering say to me with a bit of a twinkle and her English accent,
“Where did you get that beautiful hair?” or “You’ve got good hair and you didn’t get it from me!” Short on apologies
but lavish with praise, this comment became a mantra over the years, forming a neural superhighway in my mothers
brain, a main route she could always to come back to, retrievable now even in her dementia.
More recently, I finally succumbed and uploaded a photo taken last spring on my profile. I had been on for four years with the same profile but no photograph. Perhaps it was an expression of my ambivalence
about dating, or concerns for privacy but being on an internet dating service with no photograph almost guarantees
that no one will read your profile, no matter how intriguing. Men are very visual creatures. I was flying stealth.
It was fine with me. Then my dear friend, Kathy Staat took a fun shot of me outside my office for my mother and
I thought “What the hell!” I posted the picture. It’s the same picture I am using on this blog. Suddenly at the tender
age of 51 in my black leather jacket, blonde hair and Vera Wong glasses, I began to receive more attention than I
could ever want or manage from men all ages, races and political persuasions. My email was flooded with winks
and blinks and messages. A frequently asked question: Was I Goldie Hawn? My most frequent answer: Huh?
I realized then that I had not just uploaded a photograph on a “good hair day”. I had uploaded a cultural icon,
an archetype. It’s all about the hair.

Chemo is not kind to hair. Chemo is designed to destroy rapidly dividing cells. That includes cancer cells, hair, nails
and cells that live in the mouth and GI tract areas. Chemo doesn’t know how to kill the cancer and keep the hair.
I knew I would loose my hair and I was really ok with it. I wanted to have fun and be creative. I wanted to be proactive.
I had a plan. There would be a countdown of weeks before it started to fall in great gobs down the shower or meet
me like a small mammal on my pillow in the morning. In the meantime I was determined to have an adventure,
to meet it on my own terms.
DeeDee, my seventeen year old grand daughter, is very good with the little steel scissors. Shortly before my first
chemo session I asked her if she would give me a series of successively shorter hair cuts culminating with the
Buddhist nun shaved head look. I thought it would be a sweet way for us to connect, to value DeeDee for her own
unique way of supporting me through the journey with cancer. I also thought I could experiment with different wild
looks with a kind of abandon reserved only for teenagers or those who know they are about to loose all their hair
anyway. DeeDee had complete permission to do whatever she wanted to her Mima’s hair. She could turn me into an
aging punk waif with a Mohawk, dye it iridescent blue, and spike it with waxy gels or create something more elegant
and subdued. I was up for the wild.
My first doo was a sexy bob, with long front pieces and as DeeDee would say "side swept bangs". The second cut won the Annie Lennox
look alike contest or at least in our imaginations. Each time DeeDee came over with her sister, Wynne, and we had
our own little party on the deck. My hair went into a bucket. The sound of DeeDee’s razor and little steel scissors
cut through the hot Texas summer afternoon. The cicadas sang in the background. I didn’t cry like I might have when
I was little. It was fun. We were beating the ravages of chemo, one hair cut at a time.
The next cut was trickier. I asked my friend, Ian Forslund, if he would help me. Ian is a very talented clinical
social worker in one of my study groups. He is also a Buddhist practitioner and a ten year cancer survivor. He shaves
his head. I asked him if he would shave mine. He said he would be honored. I was very touched. I wanted to
create a ritual around it. Ian had some times available and then was going out of town. Word on the street is that
your hair starts coming out about the tenth day after the second chemo session. And that it happens fast,
three days or so. We still had time… or so I thought.
It was a Monday morning in late July. In the quiet intimacy of a morning shower, running shampoo through my
new Annie Lennox doo, my hair began to fall down my shoulders onto my body and into the eddying swirl of the
drain beneath my feet. Even though I knew this moment would come, I was taken by complete surprise when it did.
Did I think somehow I could beat it with my magical powers...that it wouldn’t happen to me? Had I really been
in denial all along? No, it’s not that. It’s just that when your hair falls out so radically nothing in your experience
prepares you for it. The instinctive part of your brain says “something is terribly wrong!” recoiling even though you
knew this was coming. The visceral response of the body/mind over rides vanity. It’s a moment when you know that
you are battling cancer with rugged medicine, and that Life is way beyond your control. It’s a moment when you talk
to your God.
Over the next two days massive amounts of hair fell into my hands. By Wednesday I was afraid to shower at the risk
of loosing all that might be left. My head hurt as though an invisible person were standing behind me pulling my hair.
I was desperate. Ian and DeeDee were out of town. My son, Eliot, called from Costa Rica and urged me to get his
dad to use his clippers that night. I couldn’t wait. I called Cristina Crawford, my hairdresser and friend of many years.
She knew. She could see me at 4. I drove across town to the upscale salon in North Austin. She met me with love
and open arms.With tears in her eyes, she reminded me of all the great haircuts we could do when my hair grew back.
I asked her if she had ever done this before, shave a woman’s head to deal with the impact of chemo:
she said no. I called her a chemo virgin. She said I would always be her first time. We laughed.
She brought me over to the sink, placing my head in the bowl, rubbing aroma therapy oils into my scalp, then
tenderly and sensually washing my hair. It mostly all fell into her hands with the force of the warm water coming from
the spray hose. She remained calm, supportive and loving giving no clue that the experience might have been difficult
for her. When she finished there were little tufts left here and there. I sat up. Together we walked to her station. Other
women in the salon were trying to look away, perhaps because they were trying to overcome the tendency to stare, or
the unsettling fear that “there but for the grace of God go I” or perhaps because the woman in the very back of the
salon looked like a big plucked scary turkey.
Cristina buzzed what was left down to the bare bones. It was a harder adjustment than I had anticipated.
I wondered how I would muster the courage to walk from the back of the salon, through the men’s section, paying
up front in the trendy boutique at the cash register and then walk across the parking lot to my car. It had not
occurred to me to bring a hat, a scarf or one of the two hand-me-down wigs in my closet at home. It had not
occurred to me that I might need some time to adjust to my new Buddhist nun look. It had not occurred to me that
I would feel so exposed.
Cristina sensed my discomfort and went to the front to find me something to cover my head. She looked high
and low for a scarf but there was not one to be found. She returned with a pink Izod sun hat which was
extremely geeky and expensive. I decided I would just go bald. She looked further. She found some headbands
that were wrapped with silk scarves. I couldn’t quite imagine putting a headband on my bald head. It reminded me
of those little headbands Hispanic mothers put on their girl babies for a baptism or maybe for the funny looking ones,
so you now it’s a girl. I declined. I was just going to brave it. I knew I was a girl.
Then Cristina remembered that her son’s baseball cap was in the trunk of her car. She wanted me to have it.
That sounded great to me, a definite upgrade. I was starting to feel like a fussy bald Goldilocks. I could manage a
baseball cap. I was thinking it might even be a team I like. The Yankees...The Red Sox...The Oakland “A’s”...Cristina
returned and put the black baseball cap on my head. In beautiful white embroidery it read
“Jack Daniels, Old No.7 Brand, Charcoal Mellowed Drop by Drop, Old Time Tennessee Whiskey, since 1866”.
As Goldilocks would say, “It was just right”. I looked like a bald biker chic. I was ready to hit the streets. There was
something so deliciously absurd about it all, that all I could do was giggle.
Giggling goes along way to soften the edges. In the morning of the next day, I went walking along the town lake trail
with two girlfriends, my Jack Daniels hat and my new bald head. Peggy Kelesy took the pictures while Vicki Toten
kissed my newly hatched head. Now my mother tells me I have a beautiful head and I didn’t get it from her. But I just
might have gotten the capacity to laugh.from my mother. To be able to laugh in even the hardest of times.
That is a true gift! Thanks Mom, not so much for the hair but for the laughter.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I am torn between the microscope and the telescope;
And when I lift my head, I peer through the periscope.
So many ways of seeing - infinite states of being.
With countless possibilities and unlimited opportunities -- I send all barriers fleeing.

For the microscope cannot see my power
Life patterns swirl behind the scene.
And the telescope cannot see my power
Life patterns dance; wildly, they careen.

Living in reality of this moment; living from truth of all time.
My very existence depends upon the view through those dichotomous lenses, a conundrum
From within will come the light, the strength, the healing.
Life's effervescence tingles from my toes to my nose ... and I find myself purely Being.
My innate scope is joyful for the constellation of friends with healing chants and drums
Collecting all these lenses and looking for the one,
That reminds us how the ocean, still yet moving, is a mirror for the sun.

Lisa collected 15 of my amazing friends and together, line by line, they evolved this remarkable and utterly expansive poem. You guys are too cool!

Thank you, beloved ones!

Hair has meant alot to our generation. During chemo therapy
most or all of your hair falls out. If you love someone who is going
through chemo therapy and you want to make them really
giggle, I have a suggestion. Get all your friends together to learn
the words and the chord progressions to the fabulous sixties
musical "Hair". Put on a show and buzz your pointy head in solidarity.

She asks me why...I'm just a hairy guy                    Cm Abmaj7...Cm Eb
I'm hairy noon and night; Hair that's a fright.              Cm Ab; Cm Eb
I'm hairy high and low,                                                            Gm Eb 
Don't ask me why; don't know!                 Gm Bb; Bb
It's not for lack of bread                                           Gm Eb
Like the Grateful Dead; darling                 Gm Bb; (F-Bb)
Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair                              Cm Ab Cm Eb
Shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen                             Cm Ab Cm Eb
Give me down to there, hair!                                                   Gm Eb
Shoulder length, longer (hair!)                                  Gm Bb
Here baby, there mama, Everywhere daddy daddy    Gm Eb; Gm Bb7
Hair! (hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair)          Cm Ab Cm
Flow it, Show it;                                                     Eb Bb7
Long as God can grow it, My Hair!                           Eb7 Ab Bb7, Eb Bb11
Let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees     Cm Ab Cm Eb
Give a home to the fleas in my hair                                                         Cm Ab Cm Eb
A home for fleas, a hive for bees                                                             Gm Eb; Gm Bb
A nest for birds, there ain't no words                                        Gm; Eb
For the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my                        Gm Bb7
I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy                           Dm7 G7
Snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty                   Dm7 G7
Oily, greasy, fleecy, shining                                    Gm Cm
Gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen                          Gm Cm
Knotted, polka-dotted; Twisted, beaded, braided   Cm7 F7; Cm7 F7
Powdered, flowered, and confettied                                         Cm7 F7
Bangled, tangled, spangled and spaghettied!            Cm F7 Bb7
O-oh, Say can you see; my eyes if you can,            Eb Bb
Then my hair's too short!                                                        Bb
Down to here, down to there,                    Eb Cm
Down to where, down to there;                 Eb Cm
It stops by itself!                                                     Bb
doo doo doo doo doot-doot doo doo doot (repeat: no chord)
They'll be ga-ga at the go-go                                    Cm Ab 
when they see me in my toga                                  Cm Eb
My toga made of blond, brilliantined, Biblical hair      Cm Ab Cm Eb
My hair like Jesus wore it                                                       Gm Eb
Hallelujah I adore it                                                                Gm Bb7
Hallelujah Mary loved her son                                  Gm Eb
Why don't my Mother love me?                                Gm Bb7
CHORUS (three times to end)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

For the Sorrow Spring

You invisible one
resounding on your own
whatever the others
happen to be playing
source of a note
not there in the score
under whatever key
unphrased continuo
gut stretched bewteen
the beginning and the end
what would the music
be without you
since even through
the chorus of pure joy
the tears hear you
and nothing can restrain them.

- W.S. Merwin

Naomi Shihab Nye, one of my favorite poets, sent this to me along with other of her favorite poems. She included a sweet note letting me know she was rooting for me before my surgery. It is only today that I begin to understand the poem as it must be read from one's deepest heart.

Thank you, Naomi...
Last week, for my second chemo session, I asked my beloved friend Sydnor Sikes if she would bless the intravenous drugs used for my chemo. My intention through this journey is to is to have a beloved from each faith offer their prayers for healing over the chemicals. I want the chemo to be as holy water as it enters my body; bringing light into the darkness, chasing away all harm and healing me with each drop. Sydnor joined Jim and I at the Cancer Center and quietly prayed in Arabic. She said she saw angels all around us. I am not one who sees angels. But I did notice Pam nestled away in the other corner of the room smiling at us.

I thought alot about my choice to invite prayers for healing in both Hebrew and Arabic while a brutal war rages in the Holy Land, in southern Lebanon and northern Isreal. Cancer is like a war in the body, whether you view the cancer as the Hezbollah or the Isrealis. I battle my cancer. The chemo blasts my body like katyusha missiles. The radiation is targeted and precise like an Isreali special forces unit. I am an innocent civilian caught in the cross fire, a Hezbollah fighter ingenious and determined, an Isreali soldier focused and brave. And I am calling for a true cease-fire, the restoration of boundaries that fosters the possiblity of a deep peace and the rebuilding that occurs in the aftermath. I pray in Hebrew and Arabic. I hedge my bets. God only listens to the longing.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Twas the Night Before Chemo and All Through the House…

It seemed like a going away party. There was great food. The circle of friends sitting in the living room kept stretching to include the next guest that came through the front door. Nancy, newly ordained as a rabbi, had arrived the night before from Philadelphia. It was the first time I had seen Kelley and Tim in six months; their work as film editors had taken them to London to work with the BBC and then on to Thailand. Lisa, Amiel, and Ann had brought presents: trinkets and talismans to bring on the journey offering protection and hope, a hand me down wig, and recipes for finding joy in the strangest places.

The laughter in the living room could be heard in the kitchen. My old office partners used to point to my consultation room and joke “Can’t be any therapy going on in there. Way too much laughter is coming out of that room!” I always took it as a high compliment, believing the opposite to be true; that deep healing occurred in my office and the laughter was an expression of it. It was like this at my home the night before my first chemo.

Then Nancy brought everyone together for the blessing. We joked about why a White Anglo Saxon Buddhist (WASB) might require kosher chemo. I expressed my deep gratitude that Nancy had flown in from Philly to “ Baroucha Tad Annoy Us.” We laughed and then collected ourselves into the deeper purpose of our gathering; to prepare me for my first chemo. Nancy began to sing a powerful chant, one that Moses sang for Aaron’s wife when she was ill. Ana El Na R’ Fa Na La. Translated from the Aramaic “Source of Life, Please Grant her Healing” I had heard it only one other time, the night before my surgery when my dear friend Rabbi Barth sang it at the Shambala Center. The circle of friends sang the plaintiff chant over and over and then hummed the melody without words. The melody became the background in which friends offered blessings and poems. Joan played her didgeridoo, elegantly holding the long carved aboriginal flute between her feet. It sounded like the throat singing of Tibetan monks.

Nancy reminded me of how often times over the years I had given “blessing ways”, sacred rituals for women before childbirth or marriage. In these rituals, I would wash a beloved woman friend’s feet in lavender water and dry her feet in corn meal. It was a Native American tradition that I had borrowed, a cleansing ritual specifically performed in times of great transition. This time Nancy washed my feet and my hands as part of the “blessing way” for my chemo, a sacred preparation for the next step of the journey. The chanting stopped. In the silence all that could be heard was the water as it fell gracefully from the pitcher over my hands and into the bowl where my feet were resting. Tears quietly rolled down my face. The group held the silence. Nothing could be simpler or more holy.

Nancy sang me to sleep that night, chanting in Hebrew, invoking and inviting all the angels and archangels to watch over me. I can’t say that I believe in angels. I can’t say that I don’t. I did when I was a little girl. I talked to them then. I liked to dress up with gossamer wings and a halo, sometimes a princess tiara would do. I believed that if I was very, very good I could pass for an angel. The angel Gabriel was my friend. So were Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha and a horse named Flicka. Gabriel and the angels disappeared along with Santa, the Easter bunny, and my father, a fierce protector, who died when I was nine. My naivety was buried with him. Life suddenly required much more from me. Illusions of permanence seared. Just as now, the work of seeing the world as it really is, as Romain Rolland would say, and to love it, is true heroism.

Yet now, I am finding new angels and fierce protectors, avalokitesvara and mahakala, in the holiness of everyday life. My childhood naivety has been brought back to life and transformed into a new receptivity that arises out of deepened vulnerability. There is something healing about sitting at the edge of the unknown, honestly and squarely being with what is.. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in 1960:

”You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself. "I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along."

In the morning, Jim, Nancy and I drove to the Cancer Center. Nurse Lovely met us with a radiant smile. She prepared my intravenous infusion by flushing it with a saline solution directly into the port in my chest. Instantly there was the taste of skunk in my mouth. It was not what I was expecting. The lanocaine hadn’t yet totally numbed the area, so it was also painful. I focused on my breathing. We were ushered into an area where the infusion was to be performed. Each bag was filled with a different chemical; a steroid, a high powered ant-nausea drug, citril, adriamycin and then citoxin to be administered in a sequence with the “skunk flush” between each drug. Mandy, a fresh faced mid western nurse who had recently moved to Austin, introduced herself. She would administer the IV. I felt a moment of panic, the wish to run faster than I have ever run. I imagined a powerful finish line sprint down the hall, out the double doors through the parking lot and onto 38th Street. From there maybe I could get as far as Central Market before Nurse Lovely noticed and hide in the produce department along with the eggplant. Maybe I could run like I once did before the two knee surgeries. I would run like a gazelle being chased by the lion. The panic turned into tears. Jim squeezed my hand. Perhaps it’s the other way around. In his soulful calm, I found my courage again. I remembered to breathe, soothing my body’s instinctive push to fight or flight, reversing it. Perhaps I am the lion. Or perhaps the lion is the chemo chasing down and savaging any cancer cells that would risk living in my body, a body that had valiantly walled of the cancer from spreading into my lymph or vascular system. A strong and beautiful body…

Mandy saw my tears and spoke calmly and reassuringly. She was gracious; allowing me to find the place within myself to face what was next. Nancy blessed each bag, asking that each of these drugs might bring me to a fill and complete recovery with little suffering. She held my hand together with Jim’s hand. We are old friends, the three of us. We have walked much of our last twenty five years knowing each other deeply. Our friendship is fierce medicine.

The strength of attachment bonds is what allows any of us the bear the unbearable. The Ancient Celtic word for this is “Anamkara”…sacred friendship. My friend, John O Donohue, writes beautifully about this very thing. It is what rescues us from the loneliest of our own dark fissures; healing ancient agonies with a wink, a twinkle, a giggle or a kind knowing and restoring us to a sense of belonging.

“May I tell you something?” asked the patient next to us. She had been quietly watching us, seated alone, undergoing her chemo. She was tall as her Zulu ancestors with arms the width of my thighs, her eyes soft and coffee brown. It was the second time round for Pam; she had been through all this before. She had faced the horror once and was back to face it again. She seemed calm and at peace, unafraid. “I have never seen anyone pray here like that, not in this place. It is beautiful.” We thanked her and offered to bless her chemo. She said no, she had her church and family at home. She was getting ready to leave. She asked if she could touch me. I said yes. She came close and held my hand. “Remember this one thing: God is the physician. Prayer is the medicine” She looked into my eyes with a great love.

Whether Pam lives or dies as a result of the cancer that has returned to her body, there is something about her that is completely healed. She is living with great lovingkindness, tremendous faith and optimism and no fear. Pam is a living example of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words. She can take the next thing that comes along. With the help of angels and friends, I am beginning to believe that I can, too…

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The nurse who draws my blood at the South West Cancer Center is lovely. No, I mean really. Her name is Cheryl Lovely. She has caramel coloured skin and large brown eyes , a heart shaped face framed in black ringlets. The first time I went back to the lab where the blood work is done, I had an entourage: Gina, Jim and my dear friend Joel. She asked if we liked to dance and we said yes. She showed us some moves. Joel and Gina tangoed across the floor. Gina took stealth pictures with her phone. She took a shine to us and we to her. She asked me if I knew that "sassy little mama, Lexi Perlmutter". I said "of course". "I thought so... you must be trouble just like her," she said with a wild look in her eyes. "You bet!" We laughed. " Good!"

An old black woman was having her blood drawn beside me. There was a far away look in her eyes, the shadow cloak of invisibility wrapped around her shoulders. It was as if she were no longer here. Her breathing was shallow. The pain in her body had sent her away. I worried about how much fun we were having, as if our joy and playfulness might somehow cause her more suffering. She may have been too withdrawn to notice or care. I felt a deep sadness for all the people who were there alone; silent, frightened and waiting.

Nurse lovely took the blood from my left arm, carefully protecting my right arm from the risk of lymph edema. She joked about being a vampire. She explained to me how she was never going to tell me, "poor girl... you have cancer, how aweful!". I told her I liked that. "Why do you think I like working here?" she asked. I didnt know.

"Becasue, I get to see miracles everyday... I have already claimed your healing." She held my face in her hand and kissed me on each cheek.

There is an angel in the lab. She is lovely.